Social functions can be a nightmare for parents of a child with autism (and for the child for that matter). But they don't have to be. With enough planning and preparation, your child can attend those functions with relatively few problems. Yesterday, we took Gus to an engagement party for a good friend of ours. I'll be honest – I had a knot in my stomach from last week until well after we had gotten to the party, which had about 50 or so people present and is usually a recipe for disaster. But he did just fine. Now, let me point out that Gus's age and the amount of education and behavioral training he's received for the last 6 years made a big difference. If we had taken him to a similar party 3 years ago, we would have had a much different experience. So the first thing to consider is where your child is developmentally. If you can realistically give your child a 50/50 chance of success, then go for it. But if you know your child is just really not ready to stretch his wings, maybe it's best to wait.
Know and Prepare the Environment
I almost never take Gus to places that are completely foreign to us. If we're going to a new place, like yesterday, I do some homework ahead of time to get an idea of what he can get into and what we'll be dealing with. We knew about how many people would be attending the party and that the number was likely more than he could manage, so a few conversations with our friend solved that problem. He very kindly agreed to set up a game system for Gus away from the party area so that Gus wouldn't be overwhelmed. We also knew that the area was not fenced in (we had to be on alert that he could elope very easily), and that there would be 2 dogs outside. This prior knowledge allowed us to plan for two major issues ahead of time. Our friend also let his family (our hosts) know about Gus's challenges, and that was a big help because there was less pressure on us about offending the hosts by being upstairs most of the time (for the most part one of us was at the party at any given time – more on that later). I think it was helpful for them as well because it took the guesswork out of why that little boy was holed up in that room, or why he kept running laps around the house before going back up to the room, or why we had to be so on-top of him. I have found that when we are up front with people about Gus's situation, they have tended to be understanding and helpful. Sometimes they still don't get it, but since our friend knows Gus pretty well, he knew exactly what we would be dealing with.
Prepare Yourself and Your Child
We did a few things to prep Gus about the party. For one thing, he had some choices about what we would bring for him and whether or not we'd go to soccer first or just skip it (we skipped). We gave him plenty of time to get used to the idea that there would be dogs and reassured him about that. On the trip there, as we usually do, we went over the rules and expectations. For ourselves, we made sure we had plenty of snacks, movies and games to keep him busy. We also use a sort of tag—team system for these situations to share the responsibility of watching the kids. You may have wondered where MM was in all this. Although she is 'neurotypical' we still prepare her the same way we prepare Gus. But she usually can be given a little more freedom, and she spent most of the party making friends with the other kids and playing outside. So we kept switching off – one of us would stay with Gus and the other would mingle and keep an eye on MM. Gus even ventured out several times to walk around and then went back to his game. Neither of us was being too rude and each got to enjoy the party a little.
Use the Objects of Obsession to Your Advantage
When deciding what to bring to keep Gus entertained it was really a no-brainer, but I'll mention it anyway. We brought a bunch of games, and our friend brought his Wii, but there was no way we were leaving the Pokémon games behind. We could have made the mistake of just letting Gus play whatever Wii games our friend had, but thankfully, we didn't. Gus got frustrated with the new games, and if that was all we had to work with, we would have had a major problem. With the Pokémon game, however, he was more than happy to play it for most of the 5 hours we were there (yes, you read that number right – I was surprised we lasted that long too). I was even able to leave him alone for a few minutes at a time to get him food or to check on the party.
Be Flexible and Know When to Call it Quits
For people on the spectrum, it can take more energy to regulate themselves that for the average person, and Gus is no different. We always have to be aware of when his reserves of self-control are starting to slip. What I've learned is that when I see those signs, we have to go and people just have to understand. We used to try to stay until at events until it was 'polite' to leave – usually after dessert, but that is a good way to ask for a meltdown. Better to cut the losses – people appreciate not having a scene much more than having you eat dessert, I think. As I mentioned before, Gus wanted to go outside every now and them and for the most part, he stuck to the rule of staying at the party. But when I saw that he didn't want to sit and eat, and then started wandering into the next property, I knew he was done. As much as I hate to 'eat and run' that's pretty much what we did, because he can lose it pretty quickly. By the time I was getting him to the car, he'd started struggling with me to start running around, and he'd stopped listening. Staying, at that point, would have been dumb on our parts (which I know from first hand experience).
Even the Way We Party Isn't Typical Anymore
So we've had to make some refinements to the way we socialize when we take the kid with us. We can't just go to a party and hang out with friends while the kids run around and entertain themselves. But whereas we used to just take them places and be miserable chasing after a very wound up Gus, we're learning how to make the situation more manageable for everyone. And as he grows and matures, he's able to handle more for longer periods of time. Yesterday, he even petted and played with the dogs once he saw how calm and well-behaved they were. It's gotten better. We're still not ready for Disney World, but give us another few years.
*painting by Albert Chevalier Tayler